When Moritz Wagner first arrived at Michigan, he developed an allergy — to rebounding.
After two seasons, the German center has seemingly found a remedy for what was holding him back.
Through two games this season, Wagner has pulled down 23 rebounds — 18 defensive and five offensive — a total that took him eight contests to reach last year.
“Go way back to his freshman year when he wasn’t getting any rebounds in games or practices. We kept emphasizing (rebounding) and he says, ‘Nobody ever really told me to do this before,’ ” Michigan coach John Beilein recalled Wednesday.
“And we think growing up in the European system where they’re all guards until all of sudden they look around and the guy is 6-10, and they say you can’t be a guard anymore.”
As a freshman, Wagner averaged 1.6 rebounds in 8.6 minutes off the bench. In the 15 games he played at least eight minutes, he recorded more than two rebounds just four times.
He remained a work in progress last season as a full-time starter and posted underwhelming numbers for a 6-foot-11, 245-pound big man. He ranked fourth on the team in total rebounds (158) behind wing Zak Irvin (172), guard Derrick Walton Jr. (182) and forward D.J. Wilson (203), and pulled down double-digit rebounds just twice in 38 games.
Knowing that wasn’t good enough, Wagner made it a point of emphasis to improve his rebounding skills throughout the offseason and during the FIBA Under-20 European Championship with the German national team over the summer.
While it’s a small sample size so far, it appears that work is paying off. Wagner’s willingness to scrap for the ball and his ability to get in better position has resulted in back-to-back double-doubles — already doubling his total from last season — with 18 points and 12 rebounds against North Florida and 10 points and 11 rebounds against Central Michigan.
“His mentality is there, and that’s what rebounding is a great deal (of). Not everything, but mentality is,” Beilein said. “I don’t care who we’re playing. He gets double-figure rebounds two games in a row, that is a really good thing for us.”
Getting biggy with it
Beilein said he doesn’t anticipate using two bigs — Wagner at the four with either sophomore center Jon Teske (7-1) or Austin Davis (6-10) at the five — at the same time much this season.
If it does happen, though, Beilein said it has more to do with defense and added Wagner is more equipped to guard at the four now than he was last year.
“I don’t know if there’s a team right now in this league that is playing with two traditional bigs, so that could be hard,” Beilein said. “I think if all of our bigs were like power bigs and we saw a team that couldn’t shoot well was small, but every team that plays small has shooters all over the place. But it could happen, it could happen.”
Beilein said it’s also possible his team could play “super small,” which likely would feature either forward Duncan Robinson or Isaiah Livers at the five and wing Charles Matthews at the four along with three guards.
No matter what Michigan did, opponents seemingly couldn’t miss from 3-point range during the first half of last season.
Through two games, it’s been the same story as the Wolverines rank 345th in the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (48.7 percent). North Florida shot 9-for-15 and Central Michigan 10-for-24 from deep, with several of the makes coming on tough contested shots.
“I think it’s better than it was last year at this time, so that’s good news because last year nobody missed,” Beilein joked. “I mean there’s some shots where you just got to look at it and say, ‘Wait a minute, we were on that one.’ ”
Beilein noted that his team has been bitten in transition a couple of times, a problem he said has been occurring daily in practice with players running to guard the same guy and failing to communicate.
“There’s never attention to transition defense all summer and then you start playing and we have not been good in it,” he said. “That’s two or three stops away from a really good defensive field-goal percentage.”